Letters of Carl Van Vechten – 1987
selected, and edited by Bruce Kellner
Being intimate does not take courage, but it takes experience. . . .
I have never been anything else, writing letters or writing books.
— Carl Van Vechten to Paul Padgette, 3 November 1963
During a long and productive life in American arts and letters, Carl Van Vechten was widely recognized for several careers—as music and dance reviewer, literary critic, scandalous novelist, photographer, jazz enthusiast, popularizer of young black writers, and promoter of the avant garde.
Now another facet of his remarkable talent is available through this selection of his letters to 150 people, culled—from among the thousands he wrote—by his friend and biographer Bruce Kellner. Amusing or informative as signposts along the cultural avenues he traveled, the letters are addressed to a literary, artistic, musical, and theatrical Who’s Who, including Theodore Dreiser (who shared his bootlegger), Lillian Gish, Langston Hughes (whose career he fostered), Ellen Glasgow, James Weldon Johnson, Alfred and Blanche Knopf (his longtime publishers), Sinclair Lewis, Mabel Dodge Luhan, H. L. Mencken (who genially fought with him about music).
There is an intimacy to letters, as Carl Van Vechten knew, if only because of our own thumbs at their margins, a friend’s touch, a lover’s touch, sometimes a stranger’s, and words for us alone. A telephone call is surely more immediate, and eventually we will be facing each other for short as well as long distance communication on television phones—extensions in the kitchen to watch each other cook, plug-ins in the bath to eavesdrop on ablutions—as progress has its way. Letters will grow even rarer than they are at present, and letter writers will seem more anomalous than they now must to many people. Already the daily mail amounts largely to batches of catalogs and pleas for worthy causes. An occasional letter camouflaged among them is rare enough. A message travels faster by wire and wind, but hang up the receiver and it’s over; hang on to the letter and it’s not. Those of us lucky enough to have come in at the end of the written era were luckier still if we were on the receiving end when Carl Van Vechten wrote letters. He worked them into a busy chronology spanning the first half of the century, during which, in the best sense of an old-fashioned word, he was its leading dilettante: a lover of the arts, a connoisseur.
Lillian Gish, the American actress, was an acquaintance
through Van Vechten’s wife Fania Marinoff.
TO FANIA MARINOFF [24 January 1927]
Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles, California
The fun began about 5 when I went to a party at Lois Moran’s, where I met Lillian Gish, Jim Tully, Joan Crawford, and Florence Vidor. Lillian Gish pretended she remembered me from Good Little Devil days. This I don’t believe …
TO LILLIAN GISH 30 January 1936
146 Central Park West New York City
Dear Lillian, Fania read your interesting contribution to The Spiritual Woman some time ago and doubtless wrote you of her enthusiasm, but I delayed as I have been too swamped in work these last weeks for a man of my venerable years. Last night, however, I read what you had to say with pleasure, and profit. Every word glitters with wisdom and if you can strike subsidies out of hard-hearted senators by your efforts, you will have done something of historical significance. Yet it is obvious that Art should be subsidized, a fact that is readily recognized when our government sends cultural ambassadors abroad.
I am writing this on the day that Mencken died and of course all of us must think of this. However, what a BLESSING the manner of his death!
We send our best love to you. Carlo
“The fascination of Carl Van Vechten’s letters is thrilling. A time and period in our history come vividly to life— and with such nuance. Read on…”
— Lillian Gish